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The U.S. attacked Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. The war continues to this day.
How is this war going? Lousy. It has to be lousy if it's still going on after 10 years. Americans seem to agree. A recent CNN/ORC poll shows 63 percent of those polled oppose the war in Afghanistan.
What does an expert who commanded U.S. military operations in Afghanistan for 19 months say about the war? I refer to Lieutenant General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.).
Barno is a Senior Advisor and Senior Fellow of a Washington think tank on national security named Center for a New American Security. He is as eminently qualified as any member of the ruling elite to take your money and waste it in Afghanistan:
"In 2003, he was selected to establish a new three-star operational headquarters in Afghanistan and take command of the 20,000 U.S. and Coalition Forces in Operation Enduring Freedom. For 19 months in this position, he was responsible for the overall military leadership of this complex political-military mission, devising a highly innovative counterinsurgency strategy in close partnership with the U.S. embassy and coalition allies. His responsibilities included regional military efforts with neighboring nations and involved close coordination with the Government of Afghanistan, the United Nations, NATO International Security Assistance Force, the U.S. Department of State and USAID, and the senior military leaders of many surrounding nations and numerous allies."
Barno testified at length on November 3, 2011 before the House Foreign Affairs Committee (the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia). He had just returned from a seven-day visit to Afghanistan. I will quote from Barno's testimony on this occasion.
"In early 2009, it became evident the international effort in Afghanistan was u2018drifting toward failure' and success could be achieved only if dramatic changes were applied u2014 most of all, a dramatic re-assertion of American leadership. Success required u2018Leadership plus Strategy plus Resources.' In 2009, our efforts were falling deeply short in all three components of this equation."
After 8 years, the U.S. hadn't succeeded (at whatever it was trying to accomplish). Failure was on the horizon. The U.S. was losing the war. It wasn't doing anything right. It didn't have the right leadership to win (or succeed). It didn't have the right strategy to win. It didn't have enough resources committed to win.
How great have been the resources committed to date? Barno mentions
"…our mission in Afghanistan — one that has cost the United States over 1,400 lives, hundreds of billions of dollars and over ten years of great sacrifice."
The annual appropriations for Afghanistan so far add up to $557.1 billion. There are numerous other costs and costly effects of this war that are excluded from these funds appropriated. There have been over "15,000 seriously wounded soldiers". There are deaths, injuries and costs to the people of Afghanistan. There are indirect effects.
"Protecting three vital U.S. security interests should dominate our thinking as we begin to draw down forces in Afghanistan: 1) Preventing the region's use as a base for terror groups to attack the United States and our allies…"
Preventing this or any region from being used as a base for terror is not a vital U.S. security interest. It is a possible means to an end that is a vital interest, which is the safety of American citizens. Barno is not stating a vital interest at all. He is stating a conclusion, which is that the optimal way to assure the safety of Americans in America is to prevent Afghanistan from being a region that is a "base" for "terror groups".
This strategy is so important and such an important component of U.S. policy that I give it a name. I call it the Denial of Region or DOR strategy.
Denial of Region or DOR is a central feature of the anti-terror strategy that has guided American policy in both the Bush and Obama administrations.
Barno's testimony tells us that the DOR strategy hasn't succeeded.
Why has the DOR strategy not met with success in Afghanistan?
From another report on the CNAS website, we are told what is common knowledge:
"Combining small contingents of Special Forces teams with air power, the coalition successfully unseated the Taliban from power and routed al Qaeda, sending both fleeing across the Pakistani border by early 2002."
This was confirmed in 2010 by the CIA Director:
"CIA Director Leon Panetta said on Sunday there may be fewer than 50 al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan, with u2018no question' that most of the terrorist network is operating from the western tribal region of Pakistan."
Under the DOR doctrine, the U.S. denied Afghanistan as a region in which terrorists could cluster and train terrorists. But in order to accomplish this, the U.S. "…unseated the Taliban from power…" This led eventually to the continuation of war against a reconstituted Taliban.
The U.S. destroyed the existing government and political equilibrium. That was its first mistake, but part and parcel of the DOR strategy in this particular country. Then it sought to bring about a new government friendly to itself. This was a second mistake. To do this, the U.S. had to choose favorites within the country. In one way or another, it had to exclude or diminish the influence of the unseated Taliban. But this meant that it could not rediscover a viable new political equilibrium in which a majority supported the new government.
At the root of this mistake was that the U.S. didn't reckon with the ethic and tribal composition of Afghanistan. The Taliban could not give up. They couldn't fade away because they are largely of the Pashtun tribes and this is the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. The new Afghan army and police are mainly from other minority tribes to whom the Pashtun are antagonistic. By going against the Taliban and thus the Pashtun, the U.S. created an unstable political equilibrium.
With the old Taliban government deposed, a complex situation emerged involving the U.S., NATO, NATO countries, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and, of course, several tribal entities within Afghanistan. It also involved Pakistan, Iran and India.
The Taliban reconstituted itself by 2006 and began a war of insurgency against the new western-birthed Afghanistan government in Kabul, led by Karzai. The NATO countries in the region and the U.S. naturally took the side of their new baby.
At the root of the U.S. problems in Afghanistan was first the decision in late 2001 to adopt a DOR strategy, and second the related decision to attack the Taliban government as a terrorist entity and eliminate it.
What else went wrong? The terrorists fled into the "western tribal region of Pakistan". The U.S. expanded the war into that region. The resulting political situation destabilized Pakistan. Relations with Pakistan worsened.
What else? Denial of one region simply leads to movement to one or more other regions. This leads to war in more and more and more regions. As these wars occur and as more and more innocent people get killed in U.S. attacks, more and more evidence piles up that terrorists can use to indoctrinate new terrorists into jihad. At terrorism school
"Evenings are for indoctrination. It might seem strange that students enrolled in militant training would need further convincing, but local recruits are reportedly often cajoled or forced into attending by their families or madrasas. Recruits are shown hours upon hours of video depicting Western atrocities against Muslims to dispel any doubts about the cause of jihad."
This is far from all. The idea that one attacks terrorism by denying training grounds or bases to terrorists is wrong in the most practical terms. Terrorists don't need bases to train, and they can move into many places and regions. They can change their training methods so as to avoid detection. They already have changed. See also here. Read the latter articles for supportive detail that terrorists don't depend on bases in particular regions.
"u2018All you need is a shack or a house to learn how to fabricate explosives using homemade or commercially available ingredients,' said Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University and a longtime government adviser."
If the DOR strategy that the U.S. follows doesn't diminish terrorism and actually enhances it, and if it destabilizes whole countries and regions, isn't that enough to cast this doctrine aside? There is one more thing, and that is the outlandish cost of it. Afghanistan alone has cost over $0.5 trillion in cash plus the many killed and wounded and it's not over yet.
Let's shed some light on how wasteful this spending is. The Oklahoma City bombing took 168 lives. Wrongful death settlements vary in America, but suppose we use $10 million. This is a generous figure. Then the monetary compensation to survivors if these were wrongful death claims comes to $10 million x 168 = $1.7 billion. But the war in Afghanistan has already claimed 1,400 lives and over 15,000 injured and, on top of that, cost 328 times $1.7 billion! In other words, ask yourself if the war in Afghanistan has prevented the equivalent of 328 Oklahoma City bombings, not even counting the 1,400 dead? To my way of thinking, the Afghanistan war is all cost and no benefit. Ask yourself how much good or how much safety American could have purchased here at home for the $557 billion spent in Afghanistan?
I do not mean to pick on General Barno in particular. He just happens to have spoken clearly to us, and he is one representative of the governing establishment of the U.S. What I think is that those who wield the most power in the ruling elite do not think in terms of economics the way ordinary people do and as I have just done in calculating what $557 billion really means. You and I face budget constraints, but when our rulers want to make a war, they just go ahead and do it, and they borrow whatever it takes to pay for it. They break the budget constraint, and they saddle the American people, now and in the future, with that debt. If the government's budget constraint ever comes home to roost in the form of future large declines in living standards, the elites that caused this won't be around to be held responsible for that and other calamities. And because they don't count the costs and measure the benefits properly, we lose, not just a little but a very great deal.
As for the future, Barno is completely uncertain that any permanent gains of any kind have been won. He has nothing to promise us in Afghanistan but more costs indefinitely with no benefits to us.
"While the ultimate effect of this campaign against the diverse groups that comprise the Taliban is not yet certain, there is little question that sustained military pressure remains a crucial component in incentivizing any negotiations."
"Sustaining the success of the last 18 months will be perhaps even more problematic than the campaign that has wrenched the momentum away from the enemy, and now has put him on his back foot. Corruption and lack of Afghan capacity remain crippling problems, and little progress has emerged in these areas. Next door, relations between the United States and Pakistan have declined to perhaps their lowest point in recent memory, a development that will have immense potential influence on the shape of the next several years in Afghanistan. Similarly, cross-border tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan remain a significant barrier to a comprehensive regional security framework."
If the U.S. military is not rooting out terrorists in Afghanistan and driving them into Pakistan and other countries, then what is it doing?
"The current mission of U.S./ISAF forces in Afghanistan is COIN [Counter-insurgency] — directly leading military operations designed to protect the population and degrade the Taliban."
The U.S. is still trying to get a government of its choice in Afghanistan. The Taliban are the insurgents, using Barno's terminology. The U.S. forces are doing counter-insurgency. Counter-insurgency is not counter the terrorists that the U.S. took aim at when it entered Afghanistan. Those first terrorists left 9 years ago. Even if the Taliban insurgents use terrorist tactics of their own, the U.S. COIN is not per se anti-terror as part of a war on terror. The U.S. counter-insurgency effort is to maintain an Afghan government of its choice and give it time to organize a force that might be able, on its own, to repel the Taliban in the future and maintain power.
And what, according to Barno, is success in Afghanistan?
"In the areas where the Taliban has been rolled back, Afghan governance has improved, businesses have returned, and prosperity and personal security notably improved. Sustaining these fragile and hard-won gains will likely prove to be the top challenge of 2012 and beyond — and will ultimately be a central test for growing Afghan security forces and government. Americans cannot secure these gains over the long haul"
In his words, this took "an infusion of nearly 70,000 additional U.S. troops…" Assume that he is correct in his depiction. He tells us that some Afghans are in a better situation, not all. Yet these modest gains are "fragile" and costly ("hard-won"), and sustaining them is still a challenge in the future. Elsewhere he points out "crippling problems". Enormous problems with Pakistan have cropped up.
But are Americans better off? Whether or not Barno is correct, are ordinary Americans better off from having spent $557 billion in Afghanistan?
The American footprint is so large that Barno is unsure what happens when the Americans diminish their role and leave:
"A large infusion of U.S. forces and dollars since early 2009 has created an u2018American ecosystem' in parts of the south and southwest of Afghanistan, notably in the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. A crucial test of the gains experienced in these areas will be whether the Afghan government and security forces can maintain this elaborate system with far fewer dollars and in the face of the reality that U.S. troops will no longer be in the lead."
So we have a picture in which the U.S. is spending all kinds of money to produce small and unsure gains for some people in Afghanistan, while no doubt leaving others worse off. And we cannot even pinpoint the gains to Americans.
The General is to be lauded for his forthright testimony. It helps to have such a man tell us the following:
"It is unclear whether the United States or the international community in Afghanistan has an adequately clear definition of the end state of the conflict which equates to u2018success.' Disparate outlooks on where we are going, what is u2018Afghan good enough,' what is acceptable or unacceptable in terms of outcomes on corruption, women's rights, democratic government, local reconciliation, militias permeate all aspects of our effort."
Translation: The U.S. and its NATO partners don't know what they are doing in terms of getting a friendly government installed in Afghanistan, and this after 10 years! They don't know what success, even in their own terms, entails. They disagree with one another. They are attempting to build a new government and state and even society. They don't know how to do it, or what these should include and exclude. They have a laundry list of favorite ideas like ending corruption, women's rights, democracy, and more.
On corruption, Barno has this to say:
"In my estimation, few substantive and lasting dents have been made in the pervasive corruption of Afghan government at most if not all levels. Massive infusions of U.S. dollars for development have fueled massive corruption on an unprecedented scale."
Translation: Hard-earned American dollars are going straight into the pockets of members of the Afghan government.
Barno tells us that the U.S. military fails to build up what I'd call "organizational capital" in Afghanistan. What soldiers learn on a tour of duty is not passed on when they are replaced by new soldiers. He quotes an observer:
"It would be comical if it were not tragic. People spend 12 months rolling the boulder up the hill only to see it roll back to the bottom when they go home. The next group arrives and then spends eight months trying to decide how to move the boulder."
His own comment on this lack of "campaign continuity" is that "Few military units we encountered had any visibility on events in their battlespace more than eighteen months in the past."
After ten years and after the surge, which Barno says has been a success, he concludes
"While significant success has been achieved by U.S. and NATO forces since 2009, whether the Afghan government and security forces can sustain these gains is open to question…the enemy has not been defeated, merely set back on his heels."
Where are the direct gains to the Americans who have to pay the bills for any of this? Where are any gains at all?
Now that 63 percent of Americans disapprove of the Afghanistan War, I hope they realize that the ruling U.S. elite, not being stupid, are not acting with the interests of ordinary Americans in mind. And for this reason I hope that Americans stop supporting the ruling elite. I hope they get their emotions under control. Americans need to stop automatically supporting bullets and bombs and drones and assassinations and wars whenever their leaders mention terror, or terrorist, or terrorism, or 9/11, or provide some other fabricated pretexts. The ruling elite is the Pied Piper.
Americans, listen to the ruling elite… Give up your wealth for nothing.